United States v. Stauffer Chemical Company

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Stauffer Chemical Company
LOCATION: Stauffer Chemical Plant

DOCKET NO.: 82-1448
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 464 US 165 (1984)
ARGUED: Nov 02, 1983
DECIDED: Jan 10, 1984

ADVOCATES:
Charles F. Lettow - on behalf of Respondent
Louis F. Claiborne - on behalf of Petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a private firm planned to inspect a plant owned by Stauffer Chemical Co. (Stauffer) in Tennessee. Before granting entry, Stauffer requested that the employees of the private firm sign an agreement promising not to disclose any trade secrets they might learn during the inspection. The employees refused, and Stauffer denied them entry. The EPA and private firm returned with a warrant to enter the premises, but Stauffer again denied them entry.

The EPA began a civil contempt proceeding against Stauffer to gain entry. The district court ruled in favor of the EPA and Stauffer appealed. On appeal, Stauffer argued that the employees of the private firm did not qualify as “authorized representatives” under the Clean Air Act, and therefore Stauffer was not required to grant them entry. Stauffer had used this argument before in a similar case from Wyoming, which involved the same parties. Stauffer argued that this previous case precluded the government from re-litigating this issue. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with Stauffer and reversed.

Question

Does a state court’s ruling in a prior case that involved the same party, issue of law, and nearly identical fact scenario prevent the government from re-litigating that issue in a different venue?

Media for United States v. Stauffer Chemical Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 1983 in United States v. Stauffer Chemical Company

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Claiborne, I think you may proceed when you're ready.

Louis F. Claiborne:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The question on the merits in this case is whether, in carrying out periodic inspections of stationary emissions sources under the Clean Air Act, EPA may avail itself of the help of retained independent contractors under a provision of the Clean Air Act that permits the use of authorized representatives of the Administrator for this purpose.

But before reaching that question on the merits, there is a threshold question, which is whether EPA was barred in this particular suit from asserting the affirmative of the question on the merits because in an earlier suit arising out of an attempted inspection of another plant belonging to the same company, but located in a different state and a different judicial district, another Court of Appeals had rejected that position.

This case, which is referred to in the papers as Stauffer II, arises out of an attempted inspection of Respondent's phosphorus plant in Tennessee some time in March of 1980.

EPA personnel, accompanied by state officials and also by retained independent contractors, experts in the field, sought entry to that plant.

The company refused entry to the independent contractors.

Negotiations followed.

An impasse was reached, and some weeks later, in August, EPA secured a warrant to enter the plant.

That warrant specifically authorized that they, EPA personnel, be accompanied by the independent contractors.

Nevertheless, the company again refused entry to the contractors.

EPA then moved to hold the company in contempt for disobedience of the warrant, and in turn the company moved to have the warrant quashed.

Now, by this time Stauffer, Respondent here, had won this same issue in a district court in Wyoming, in the Tenth Circuit.

This decision is referred to in the papers as Stauffer I.

Interestingly, in this case, the case before the Court today, when it was in the district court it was not argued, and indeed it seems to be common ground that it could not have been argued, that Stauffer I was any bar to reaching the merits in the present case.

That is because not only was that district court decision in Stauffer I not final... indeed, it was appealed... but also because the holding on the issue that concerns us here was merely an alternative holding, and in those circumstances estoppel would not apply.

Accordingly, the district court in our case considered the matter on the merits.

But it considered it for several months, only issuing its opinion in April 1981.

In the meanwhile, two other district courts elsewhere had decided the same issue.

One was in the Fourth Circuit, what is called the Alcoa case; another was in the Ninth Circuit, the Bunker Hill case.

In both instances the decision had gone in favor of EPA, allowing the use of these independent contractors to perform or to aid in the performing of these inspections.

The district court, noting this conflict among... the district court in our case, noting the conflict among these other district court decisions, Stauffer I in favor of the company, Alcoa and Bunker Hill in favor of EPA, determined to consider the matter afresh.

In its words, it was writing on a clean slate in this circuit, the Sixth Circuit.

In what can only be fairly described as a carefully reasoned opinion, the district court rejected the company's arguments and held that the statute does indeed permit EPA to use independent contractors to aid it in these inspections.

The Respondent obtained a stay and filed an appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

While that appeal was pending... and it was pending for some time, 14 months... there were two further developments.

Two of the cases I've mentioned, Stauffer I and Bunker Hill, were decided by their respective Courts of Appeals.

Stauffer I was decided by the Tenth Circuit in favor of the company, whereas Bunker Hill was decided by the Ninth Circuit in favor of EPA.

The Government did not seek certiorari from Stauffer I, that being the first appellate decision, and obviously there was then no inter-circuit conflict, and in turn when, six months later, Bunker Hill was decided by the Ninth Circuit the other way, that company did not seek certiorari to this Court.

It was against this background that the case was decided by the Sixth Circuit in the matter before the Court today.